Time management may come naturally to some more than others, but I think for most, it’s a learned skill. Low level hires don’t very much need it, their tasks are assigned to them and they can focus on doing the most tasks at the highest level of quality to get ahead. But once they succeed enough to get to the management level, understanding how to manage their time to continue succeeding, while keeping a happy work-life balance, is the real challenge.
In the organizations that I’ve been a part of, plenty of training is offered around how to better organize and prioritize tasks and coach team members, but I never saw a really great course on time management, and found few mentors who could relay their lessons successfully. Senior management have mostly gotten the handle of time management, but few shared their lessons, and many simply got to where they were by working ungodly hours to stay on top of everything.
Now with most teams working remotely, managing your time successfully could bring new challenges. But the principles are the same, it’s just a matter of applying them to the new paradigm.
Plan out your days, and defend that plan
As much as possible, actually schedule out what you plan to do each day. You can do this at the beginning of the day or at the beginning of the week, depending on how much your work load tends to change over the course of a normal week.
The key to this is in understanding how you actually get work done best, and setting your schedule to match it. When I was managing teams, I understood that I had to have my planning time in the morning, my individual tasks plotted out before lunch as much as possible, meetings after lunch, and then a couple of hours at the end of the day to wrap up whatever I couldn’t get done.
Don’t dedicate too much time to any task. It might sound like a great idea to plan five hours for a specific project, but I’ve found that 1-2 hours is the sweet spot for giving it enough time to accomplish things, but any more than that results in diminishing returns.
And within reason, don’t let people step all over the plans you’ve set. Having an open door (or open Slack) is a hallmark of a great leader, but it’s also important to teach staff to come to you when it’s high urgency, and when to save it for a next coaching session. Likewise, other managers need to respect your time by sending scheduled invites for meetings, rather than bringing you in at the last minute.
Hopefully, by getting everything into a plan, you can keep everything to a tight schedule, and enjoy the rest of your day once done.
Going back to why an open door policy might not always be the best idea, distractions can be the bane of your work day. Someone hits you up for a quick chat, and you lose 20 minutes talking about the game last night. Then just as they’re leaving, someone else pops by to ask your opinion on something they are working on. None of this was part of the plan!
This is why Inbox Zero is touted as a winning email strategy. Email can consume your whole day if you try to keep on top of every email as it comes in. But if you give yourself designated times to read and categorize email, while closing that window entirely for distraction free, focused work, you’ll get a lot more done in the long run.
But what if an important email comes through, and you really should have seen it right away?
That’s not to say you shouldn’t have some time to chat with others, but make a conscious decision of when those times will be, and make the most of them.
Don’t forget you have a team, delegate!
One of the earliest problems a new manager faces is that they have likely never led a team before, and have never had the capability or understanding of how to delegate before. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but a powerful one once you get it right.
Don’t be a hero. Don’t feel like you are the only one who can do a job right, so you can’t give it to anyone else. That’s a terrible way to think about your team, and a losing strategy in the long run. You’re going to be measured long term by the successes your team creates, and your team will be more successful if you can delegate tasks to them that make them better.
My first lesson in delegation was when a boss gave me a copy of The One Minute Manager. One minute goals, followed by one minute coachings, and finally one minute reprimands. It’s a bit simplistic, and I think delegating complex tasks takes far more than three minutes long term, but the idea in principle is a good one, even if only taught as a fable.
Bottom line though is, it’s necessary. By helping your team level up their skills by helping with some of your responsibilities, it frees you up to do other tasks, and gets them prepared to take your job when you’re ready for the next promotion.
Value your personal time
The most productive people I’ve ever met have been those who jealousy protect their time off. While they may be available for those urgent calls on the weekend, they totally ignore email once they leave the office and value the time they have for their family and personal interests.
In comparison, I’m shocked at how little some people accomplish, even when they devote 14 hours a day to work. They don’t get enough sleep, and they do nothing to recharge, and as a result, it’s a slow slog through the tasks they have in front of them every day.
That plan that we started with has to be the beginning and end of your day. In researching this piece, I learned about closed lists. The concept, developed by Mark Forster, is that you make a closed list of things that must be accomplished in a day, and once you are done, you’re done. Go home, have a beer, make love to your wife. Make a new closed list for the next day, because there will always be more work to do. If you try to get ahead by putting more things on the list constantly, you’ll be married to your work longer than your wife (my words, not his.)
Still too much? Talk to your boss
Sometimes, there’s simply just too much work to be done, and it all has to get done now. That might be how you feel about it, but it’s not necessarily the truth. But if you don’t communicate how you feel to your boss, and the whole thing continues to pile on, you’ll be worse for it.
Having too much on your plate can burn you out. You’ll get less done and feel worse for it. But the secret is that maybe some of the thing your boss expects of you are more wishes than they are needs.
Telling your boss that you need help prioritizing your workload, and maybe offloading some of the responsibility, isn’t showing weakness. On the contrary, it will give that leader a chance to coach you through it and achieve the things truly important to the organization. You get a better managed workload, and everything still gets done. Win-win!
That should hopefully help you with some of the more common traps of time management, and get you to a place where you are more productive, happier, and a better manager overall. If not, there are hundreds of suggestions you can find out there on the web, and it’s simply a matter of finding what works for you, and sticking to it. You pretty much have to, because without hopefully coming off as too corny, time is the one thing you can never get back, so you better manage it wisely.